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Home rule or no home rule? That's a question Pekin residents may get to answer someday

A proposal for the city to purchase this lawyer's office at 1024 Court St. in Pekin for a sidewalk widening project was rejected Monday by the City Council.
Steve Stein
A proposal for the city to purchase this lawyer's office at 1024 Court St. in Pekin for a sidewalk widening project was rejected Monday by the City Council.

Pekin residents will not vote on whether they want to continue to have home rule government in their community. At least, "not yet," said Mayor Mary Burress, leaving the door open for a possible referendum.

A proposal to put the home rule question on the Nov. 5 ballot was voted down 4-3 Monday by the Pekin City Council.

Burress, along with council members John Abel, Karen Hohimer and Chris Onken, voted no. Council members Rick Hilst, Lloyd Orrick and Dave Nutter voted yes.

Pekin has been a home rule community since 1971, when the city's population exceeded the 25,000 threshold to become home rule. Voters defeated a referendum to repeal home rule status in the city in 1987 by a 2-to-1 margin.

Each council member agreed Monday that a forum should be held to educate residents on what it means and doesn't mean to be a home rule community. The question of whether to hold the forum before a vote, or before council decides if it wants to schedule a vote, divided the two sides.

So what does it mean to be a home rule community? It's a complicated question. Here's how the Illinois Municipal League breaks it down:

"The purpose of home rule is to allow for local solutions to local issues and problems," the IML says on its website. "A municipality with home rule status can exercise any power and perform any function unless it is specifically prohibited from doing so by state law.

"In contrast, a non-home rule municipality may only exercise powers for which express authority is provided by state law. This means that non-home rule communities are dependent on obtaining grants of authority from the General Assembly and governor."

There are 223 home rule communities in Illinois, according to the IML. The list includes area communities Bartonville, Peoria, Peoria Heights and Washington.

Just four communities -- Lombard, Rockford, Lisle and Villa Park -- have abolished home rule, according to a study by Northern Illinois University.

There are two ways for a community to achieve home rule status, according to the IML: automatically, when its population exceeds 25,000, or by passing a referendum if its population is below 25,001.

"Population should not be the deciding factor in whether or not we are home rule," Hilst said. "It should be up to the residents."

Pekin finance consultant Bob Grogan said city staff estimated removing Pekin's home rule status would cost the city about $8 million annually because of the loss of home rule sales tax and motor fuel tax revenue.

"That would be devastating," Burress said.

Grogan also noted that raises in the city's garbage collection and wastewater and storm water collection and treatment fees, plus the new 5% utility tax approved last month by the council could have been done without home rule.

Zoning regulations and procedures, annexation and development agreements, taxation, fees, fines, administrative adjudication and real estate transactions are among the areas that would be affected by a switch from home rule, according to city staff.

Nutter said the city manager form of government used by Pekin would not go away if home rule was rescinded.

"Without home rule, we'd have a babysitter," Hohimer said. "The governor and General Assembly would tell us what we can and cannot do. We'd have another layer of bureaucracy to deal with."

"Do we really want the governor and General Assembly telling us what to do?" Burress said.

The deadline for the council to place a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot is Aug. 19.

Also voted down 4-3 Monday by the same council members was a proposal to earmark revenue from the new utility tax to infrastructure or Americans with Disability Act-related repairs and upgrades.

Grogan said the move would create a $4.7 million deficit in the general fund for the 2024-25 fiscal year, lower the general fund reserve below the recommended level, and impact the purpose of the utility tax revenue, which is to allow the budget to properly address federal mandates and pension payments after years of failing to do so.

"I hope not, but I'm afraid future councils will use the utility tax as a revenue producer," Orrick said.

"How do we know the money from the utility tax won't be spent on putting in new hardwood floors or blinds at City Hall instead of fixing our roads, which people want," Hilst said.

Also Monday, council approved an audit of the 2020-21 fiscal year budget. Required audits are behind schedule because the city's finance department didn't have enough staff and the city needed to switch accounting firms, Grogan said.

Grogan has been in his position for about a year. He inherited the audit issue.

Lawyer's office will stay, but will the shrubbery in front of the building go?

A lawyer's office at 1024 Court St. was saved from possible demolition Monday by the council.

City staff wanted to purchase the property and possibly demolish the building as part of a project to build wider sidewalks along the Court corridor, and improve sight lines for motorists turning from Washington Street onto Court east of the building.

Lawyer Mark Wertz would have been paid $114,500 for his property, his counter-offer to a recent appraisal of $114,000 done for the city, plus the city would have been on the hook for about $43,100 in relocation costs, mandated by state statute, bringing the purchase price to about $157,600.

None of that included about $50,000 for the proposed "but not required" demolition of the building, said City Engineer Josie Esker.

Shrubbery along the Court part of Wertz's office was a subject of discussion.

"The (sight lines) problem isn't a building problem, it's a shrubbery problem," Nutter said. "Maybe we should purchase the shrubs."

"It's not our property, so we can't cut down the shrubs," Esker said. "We're working with the property owner to take care of the shrubs."

Hohimer said the proposed relocation costs stunned her.

"You can move someone out of state for that kind of money," she said.

"He (Wertz) didn't want to move," Esker said.

The vote to not purchase the property was 6-0, with Burress abstaining because she lives next door to Wertz, she said.

Council also voted unanimously to not pay for aesthetic upgrades on Court as part of a renovation project.

Overhead power and communication lines would be been placed underground at intersections at a cost of at least $400,000.

Fire department aerial truck getting an $800,000 makeover to extend its life

Council unanimously approved Monday spending up to $800,000 to refurbish the Pekin Fire Department's 24-year-old 100-foot-tall aerial truck.

The work will be done by Firetrucks Unlimited in Henderson, Nev., which specializes in refurbishing fire and emergency service vehicles.

"The truck is at the end of its life. Now we should get another 15 years out of it," said Fire Chief Trent Reeise.

Deputy Fire Chief Tony Rendleman said the refurbished truck will be under warranty for one year, the same as a new truck.

Abel, a former member of the fire department, said the truck was purchased originally for $648,000.

A new aerial truck, Reeise said, costs about $2.5 million and has a delivery time of four years.

City distributes nearly $70,000 in sponsorships to annual community events

The city's sponsorship of 10 annual community events was approved Monday by the council. The sponsorships total $68,750. Revenue generated by the city's hotel tax will provide the funds for the sponsorships. Here's the sponsorship list:

  • $15,000: Marigold Festival.
  • $10,000: Farmers Market, July 4 fireworks, Twisted Cat Fishing Tournament.
  • $5,000: Pekin Pride soccer tournament, Pekin Insurance Holiday Tournament, Downtown Super Cruise, city beautification work.
  • $2,500: AJGA golf tournament
  • $1,500: Disc golf tournament.

The vote for the sponsorship funding was 6-1, with Hilst opposing because the AJGA golf tournament is played at Pekin Country Club, which is outside the city limits.

New pavement and access road approved for new T-hanger at airport

A contract with lone bidder UCM (United Contractors Midwest) of Tremont for $839,345 for new pavement and a new paved access road for the new T-hanger at the Pekin Municipal Airport was unanimously approved Monday by the council.

The bid came in below the engineer's estimate of $1,050,000.

The state will pay UCM for the work.

Karen Hohimer appointed mayor pro tem

The council unanimously approved the appointments of Hohimer as mayor pro tem and Abel as first alternate mayor pro tem for 1-year terms. The following appointments also were approved Monday:

  • Michael Reed and Murray Brian for 3-year terms on the Pekin Airport Advisory Commission,.
  • Dennis Zimmerman to the Traffic Safety Committee for a 1-year term.
  • Robert Baughman for a 3-year term on the Fire Pension Board.
  • Chris Deverman and Kelly Madden for 3-year terms on the Board of Appeals.
  • Dennis Short for a 3-year term on the Fire and Police Commission.
  • Christina Gardner, Mary Jane Sours and Randy Turner for 3-year terms on the Library Board.

No council meeting on Memorial Day

The next regular council meeting will be May 28, the day after Memorial Day. Council normally meets on the second and fourth Monday of the month.

Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.